On the Christian Question

From left: A bible painted with the phrase "queer punx for jesus", Godric, Transformative Lutheran Theologies, Body Theology
I still have all my books from back then. My best friend from college made me the one on the left. Neither of us are christian anymore, but there's sentimental value there.

In 2018, I wrote a strident Marxist takedown of Liz Breunig’s “pro-life leftism”— my first ever published essay. I argued that Bruenig’s Christian “socialism” prioritizes formal Vatican doctrine over the needs and beliefs of actually-existing Christian proletarians. The piece still holds up, but I never link to it anymore. It was something I wrote when I was still making sense of what it meant to be a communist and a Christian, when our loudest advocates of Christian socialism seemed more interested in making socialism more conservative than making Christianity into something liberatory. I'm not trying to make it make sense anymore.

I was baptized Lutheran. It was important to my dad’s side of the family, whereas my mom is an atheist and just went along with it. I probably attended Sunday school less than a hundred times total; I mostly remember reading through the bible on my own, giggling at the menstrual prohibitions in Leviticus. When my parents’ custody battle got ugly, my dad got born-again and brought us to a local charismatic megachurch. My mom, in turn, joined a local Unitarian Universalist congregation— a real lucky break for me as a queer teen.

I loved Unitarianism. I wanted to become a UU minister, and to defy the pattern where teenagers involved in UU religious education programs drift away in adulthood. Needless to say I was not the exception. I went to college, dated girls that weren’t from my youth group, and developed political commitments that made UU liberal humanism seem quaint at best.

I got in trouble at the UU contingent of the 2009 Equality March for hugging the radical queer anti-marriage counterprotesters. I was 14 and hadn't met irl anarchists before!

My best friend at Simon's Rock was Wren (pseudonymized as usual), a transmasc MCR fan and fellow fledgling anarchist. We were both survivors, and vocally so: we were not doing well. Wren was Catholic, raised in a secular family but committed to a feminist veneration of Mary— and to the transcendence of soul over body. (I’ve since learned that the latter is a gnostic heresy). At the time, neither of our bodies were a particularly hospitable place to be. We were both coping with dysphoria and rape trauma, and had turned towards Tumblr communities that were proudly sex-negative. So I experimented with the religion of Simone Weil and Catherine of Siena, of which Wren had long been a disciple. And I tried out Christianity too.

Despite my affinity with Wren's theological bearings, and my respect for Catholic liberation theology, I never seriously considered converting. Tolerating some homophobia to practice the religion of your ancestors made some sense to me, but converting from an explicitly affirming denomination to one of history's greatest exporters of homophobia didn't. Along those lines, I briefly considered Greek Orthodoxy, but soon discovered they were even more doctrinally homophobic than the Roman Church. (Many tradcaths unhappy with the politics of Pope Francis would also discover this, driving an influx of right-wing ξένοι to Orthodoxy).

So I remained Protestant, and specifically Lutheran [ELCA]. But I had serious misgivings about the basic Lutheran doctrine of solo fide, justification by faith alone. I thought that non-Christians should get to go to heaven, of course. But more than that, I thought that evil Christians should be damned to hell.

My dad is a miserable, controlling man, prone to outbursts of rage and deeply averse to any kind of therapy. He has two coping skills— exercise and prayer—and relates to both of them in excess. One of my last memories of him, right after he beat up my sister, involves him praying for forgiveness and then going for a run. He didn't bother apologizing to us.

A photo of my dad, a pasty red-faced white man in a polo, standing in front of a brick wall and some historic photo.
He's also an MRA. I hope he doesn't know how to use reverse image search.

I found it hard to believe in a god that could forgive him.  I fantasized about hellfire for him and the other men who'd hurt me, recited Psalms for the destruction of my enemies. At the same time, on this mortal coil, I had recently embraced abolitionist politics. It made intuitive sense to me; the court system facilitated my dad's abuse, and the cops abused my girlfriend for trying to escape her own violent home. But just because I knew policing hurt survivors doesn't mean I was ready to give up on punishment. Hell was an eternal prison sentence, but one administered by a perfectly fair and wise judge. I secretly believed in a kind of purgatory, where thoroughly rehabilitated offenders could someday access heaven. But I knew my dad never would.

This was not a Lutheran belief system. It was, as far as I can tell, not a Catholic one either. It was just the belief of a very sad teenager, prone to black-and-white thinking, hoping the world would someday be fair. My theology changed when my politics did, which changed with my relationship to trauma. I saw the survivor advocates I trusted, who encouraged me to see my abusers as monstrous, get outed as interpersonally violent themselves. I saw autistic and mad trans women accused of spurious abuses, then "held accountable" by removing every resource they had to survive. I read Against Innocence by Jackie Wang; I did EMDR. I just didn't want to torture my abusers anymore.

So Christianity became something new. By this point, I had lived on my own for about four years, then returned to my mom’s house for disability care. I joined a local ELCA congregation that advertised as progressive and affirming. I made friends with the pastor, an incredibly sweet woman who I still think of fondly. And I started reading about queer theology: Jesus as dissolving the human/deity binary, the God character as a BDSM top, Paul as a sex-repulsed asexual. I loved the possibilities of textual interpretation, but I was still terrified of getting it wrong. After all, the Bible had to mean something specific, right? Otherwise what’s the point?

I quit Christianity without much fanfare. I just started HRT, moved to New York, and for the first time really felt comfortable in my skin. It just didn’t make much sense to go to church anymore. There was nothing I needed there.

Early transition Noah, acne and all, in a sweater with a collared shirt underneath, and a silver cross necklace.
One of the last times I ever wore that necklace. Notice the hormonal acne.

I don't consider myself have religious trauma in the same way that exvangelical queers do. I feel embarrassed about the degree to which I tried to contort a hegemonic tradition into something other than that, but that's the history of all marginalized people doing Christianity. And sometimes it works! I wasn't wrong to admire liberation theology, just wrong to ignore the extent to which the Church violently repressed it.

For a long time, I was hesitant to consider converting to Judaism; it felt like just another thing to feel like a fraud about. I didn't always feel uncomfortable in church! I didn't have any big spiritual revelations! How was I supposed to know whether I was present at Sinai? But my fiancé took me to Zoom shul, it felt right, so I kept going even after we broke up. I've since learned that lots of converts didn't "always know", and that I didn't have to be miserable in Christianity to find joy and belonging in Judaism. Insert whatever parallels you want here.

The full story of why and how I converted is another essay. Specifically, it’s the 15-page spiritual autobiography I still have to write to complete my conversion. What I’ll say now is: I’ve learned the point of text study without right answers, and I’m still learning how to live without certainty. Also, this is the ultimate proof that I’m a Charlotte, even though everyone thinks I’m a Carrie.

I’m Reading

Towards a Gay Communism by Mario Mieli

This is a reread! I read this shortly after it came out, and I don’t think I sufficiently appreciated it. The Pluto Press reprint coincides with the month I started HRT; when I read this, I was still inching my way out of the dysphoric rigidity that marked my pre-transition sexual politics. I wasn’t ready for polymorphous perversity! And I also didn’t get Freud.

Sometimes a friend will offhandedly refer to someone as trans, and I’ll have to ask “Do you mean that in the Mieli universal transsexuality sense or in the ‘they need to start HRT ASAP’ sense?” I very rarely get a straight answer! Just like Mieli would have wanted.

On My Mind

I tweeted the other day about how people keep misusing the word “inherently” to refer to situations that are actually contextually specific. Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:

Pixelated image of a girl drinking tea in an idyllic meadow. Caption reads "being neurodivergent in this world is inherently traumatic / and it shouldn't be"
(Source unknown: my friend sent me this, it made him think of my post)

I’m not usually a grammar pedant. I just think the ability to distinguish between what is inherent and what is contingent is crucial for radical politics. This meme, for instance, is clearly trying to say “being neurodivergent in this world is traumatic even if you haven’t experienced some big-T Trauma like sexual assault”. But the qualifier in this world makes it clear that being neurodivergent is not inherently traumatic; it’s traumatic because of the environment we’re in. What about “this world” makes our upbringings traumatic?

For some neurodivergent people, it’s specific experiences of medical and educational violence, like ABA or the special education system. I suspect that’s not who’s being discussed here, and that we’re instead talking about the stress of unfair expectations, sensory distress, and social rejection. Some of this is capitalism, some of it is the built environment (still capitalism), and some of it is more nebulous social scripts, which were likely present before capitalism (though likely not before class society). If we want to fight neurological ableism, we need to know where it comes from and how it functions!

I think the overuse of the adverb “inherently”, specifically by leftists, is tied to the popularization of abolitionist politics. Abolitionists emphasize that prisons are inherently racist to emphasize that prison reform is futile. Prisons were founded in order to enact antiblack violence, to protect property and preserve capitalist rule. There is a separate argument, common among defenders of “Actually Existing Socialism”, that prisons are inherently racist under capitalism; this is not an abolitionist belief. Similarly, liberal arguments that mass incarceration is inherently racist— rather than incarceration per se— hedge the difference between “inherent” and contingent to dilute abolitionist principles. It’s important that we’re on guard for these faux-abolitionisms, which means noticing the linguistic sleight-of-hand used to promote them.

Looking Ahead

A glass evil eye amulet hanging from string.
Talking about good things makes me nervous.

The National Survivors Union was able to grant me and a bunch of my comrades full scholarships to the 2023 International Drug Policy Reform Conference. This means I get to meet my internet friends irl and see a bunch of panels from researchers that I should probably network with (I’m nervous about this part). I’ve been feeling kind of listless lately on account of not having a job or any specific grad school plans, and there’s nothing like doing some nerd shit to make me feel energized and focused.

Also, I might finally be submitting my master’s thesis for publication soon. We’ll see.